On Monday, German arms manufacturer Rheinmetall announced that it is preparing to send its LUNA NG reconnaissance drone to Ukraine as part of Germany’s latest military aid package, announced on the same day. Delivery is expected by the end of 2023.
The number of drones to be sent was not announced, but a representative of Germany’s Ministry of Defense commented that procurement costs for the drone system were in the “low double-digit millions of euros,” which would suggest perhaps $15 million to $20 million.
The LUNA UAVs belong to a class of advanced medium-size high-altitude reconnaissance drones. Precise unit costs for the LUNA NG could not be found, but similar advanced medium reconnaissance drones were in the $300,000 to $400,000 per unit range. If procurement costs were around $15 million, this would suggest the delivery of around 40 to 50 units.
Compared to the low-cost, small, low-altitude quad-rotary drones used for front-line observation, the LUNA is a completely different beast.
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Costing 50 to 100 times more than those low-cost drones, the LUNA has far more advanced technology packed into it. It is intended to survive longer—and accomplish more— than the nearly disposable low-cost models.
While the small reconnaissance drones currently operated by Ukraine near the front lines rarely fly higher than a few thousand feet, the LUNA is intended to quickly ascend to an altitude of over 16,000 feet (5 kilometers).
This improves survivability by several factors:
- Low observability due to smaller size and radar cross-section.
- Low acoustic and heat profile, with a quiet electrical motor with little heat emission.
- The high-altitude flight prevents most cost-effective countermeasures.
- Fully pre-programmable flight paths that can be altered or steered by datalink, but can avoid electronic and GPS jamming entirely by relying on onboard self-steering functionality and inflight artificial intelligence.
Many reconnaissance drones are lost to Russian electronic warfare, where jamming prevents the drone operator from continuing to direct the drone. However, the LUNA is capable of conducting its entire mission autonomously from start to finish. It does not need to rely on an active datalink or GPS signal.
LUNA’s high-altitude flight paths help to prevent most Russian anti-aircraft weaponry from targeting it, and even if it were detected, employing a $1 million+ anti-aircraft missile to knock out a drone costing one-third to one-fifth as much as the missile is a losing proposition for most foes.
The high altitude combines with high-resolution cameras plus advanced infrared and radar scanning equipment, permitting the drone to observe very far distances—an observable perimeter of over 40 km radius. LUNA is capable of maintaining surveillance in low visibility conditions, including nighttime, cloud cover, fog, or smoke. The system includes AI visual analysis that helps spot enemy movement and equipment locations and allows for rapid data review. That quick analysis can provide speedy identification of enemy targets or changes in disposition.
A LUNA NG has a flight time of up to 12 hours and is capable of maintaining a direct datalink of distances of up to 100 km, and satellite datalinks of up to 300 km. On a single flight, it can surveil up to 30,000 square kilometers. For comparison, the entire Zaporizhzhia Oblast is just a little more than 27,000 square kilometers.
As such, the LUNA NG represents a class of high-altitude, low-observable advanced reconnaissance drones at the cutting edge of Western drone technology.
Compared to suicide drones, bomb-dropping drones, or large bomber-like drones like the Bayraktar or MQ-1C Gray Eagle, the value of a reconnaissance drone may be hard for the average person to grasp.
Certainly, one extremely important aspect of reconnaissance is identifying the location and strength of enemy dispositions. It’s easy to understand that if one side knows where the enemy has placed their units and defenses and the other side does not have comparable information, the side with greater knowledge has a massive advantage.
There’s another important aspect to reconnaissance drones like the LUNA, and it’s in winning the artillery war.
In an Ukraine Update last month, I described how advantages in counterbattery radar provide an edge for Ukrainian artillery units over their Russian counterparts. This has helped lead to a lopsided 3:1 advantage in artillery kills for Ukraine.
Why is counterbattery radar valuable? Because it helps artillery units identify the locations of enemy artillery and other valuable targets.
What can a datalink-equipped, high-altitude, high-tech drone that can use AI analysis and high-resolution cameras to identify enemy targets up to 40 km away do? Identify enemy targets, like artillery or troops/equipment concentrations, for one thing. Considering that Russian artillery only have ranges of around 20 km or less, the LUNA can fly a good 15 km behind the front lines and see deep enough into Russian-controlled territory to help spot Russian artillery or troops on the move.
Even without flying into Russian-controlled territory, the LUNA NG can observe deep behind Russian lines to help spot Russian artillery or troop movements, making it very difficult for Russia to take down.
For example, a LUNA drone flying around Orikhiv, about 10 km behind the current front lines at Robotyne, could observe an enormous area relative to the size of the battlefield.
With its lengthy flight time, LUNA also can fly for very long periods and provide near-live coverage over wide swaths over the front lines in crucial sectors, all while remaining relatively safe from Russian observation or retaliation.
The LUNA NG, paired with Excalibur GPS-guided shells, HIMARS GMRLS rockets, Storm Shadow cruise missiles, and other long-range precision munitions, will multiply the effectiveness of weapons already at Ukraine’s disposal.
And the observation abilities of the LUNA NG will also greatly improve the accuracy and effectiveness of conventional artillery as well through target identification.
When describing the Battle of Urozhaine on Saturday, I noted that “observation is firepower.” The LUNA NG drone doesn’t carry firepower of its own, but its powerful reconnaissance abilities will only improve the firepower of the Ukrainian Armed Forces by providing it with more powerful eyes.
It’s a game-changer for Ukraine.
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Lead image by Julian Herzog; licensed under Creative Commons 4.0 Attribution International.